Old St. Mary's Church & Cemetery
George Washington Worshiped Here at Philadelphia's First Roman Catholic Cathedral
Cyberhikers surfing the historic streets of virtual Philadelphia are accustomed to eye-opening firsts. However, St. Mary's was the second Roman Catholic institution in Philadelphia. St. Mary's historic contributions are more modest than some churches, but without St. Mary's and the work done by many of her members, history would have turned out quite differently. The church figured prominently in the life of Colonial and Revolutionary Philadelphia.
As to Old St. Mary's firsts. The church was the site of the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence and the church became the first Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Diocese of Philadelphia (1810-38).
Though not members of St. Mary's congregation, the rich and famous spent time in her pews. Members of the Continental Congress officially attended services here four times from 1777 to 1781. The ecumenical George Washington worshiped here on at least two occasions. Puritan-born John Adams came too and wrote to his wife Abigail,
"the music, consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the afternoon except sermon time, and the assembly chanted most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is everything that can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination, everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant, I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell."
THEY WORSHIPED HERE AND ARE BURIED HERE
- John Barry, Father of the American Navy, was an early subscriber to Old St. Mary's. In the church's burial ground rests Barry, the man who found fame on the water as the first to capture a British ship during the Revolutionary War. And, when no ships were available for him to command to fight the British, he raised a brigade of soldiers and took to the ground to fight the foe in Trenton. A bridge spanning the Delaware River is named for this famed Commodore.
- Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's great-great-grandfather Michael Bouvier (1792-1874), first of the family to come from France, and some of his descendants lie beneath the vault in the Church's burial ground too.
- Thomas Fitzsimons not only signed the Constitution but was a member of the Continental Congress as well as the First, Second, and Third Congresses.
- Mathew Carey, arguably early America's most important publisher prayed here and his grave can be visited here.
- James Oeller, a Philadelphia innkeeper, whom some historians claim popularized the use of the word "hotel" in America, worshiped here. His Oeller's Hotel was giving the popular City Tavern a run for its money until the publican's inn burned during a fire started at a nearby circus.
- John Neagle, one of early America's foremost portraitists, and whose work can today be seen at the Second Bank of the United States/Portrait Gallery, prayed in Old St. Mary's.
- Stephen Moylan was George Washington's aide-de-camp.
- George Meade, the grandfather of the hero of Gettysburg is here too.
THE CHURCH TODAY
Guests in Philadelphia are encouraged to tour the still-active church. The facade of the building is flat and made of brick; the church's interior, and especially the balcony, is captivating and worth a visit. A revealing slice of religion in early America awaits.The Continental Congress met here officially four times.
On July 4, 1779, the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence was held here.
The cemetery dates to 1759.
French, Spanish, and Portuguese ambassadors had special pews for them in the church's early history.
Many refugees from the French Revolution attended St. Mary's.
A crucifix in the Church was carved by renowned sculptor William Rush. The front of the church's organ was crafted by Thomas U. Walter, the man responsible for designing the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Location: 252 South 4th Street (near Spruce St.) (Map)
Built: 1763; enlarged 1810; renovated 1963
Architect: Master carpenter Charles Johnson
Tourism information: Free. Mo-Fr 9am-5pm. Services, call 215-923-7930.
Pew Register of St. Mary's Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1787-1791